Balancing the Tightrope Between China and Russia is Serious Business

Alternative Perspectives

Brian Hart is a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where he researches the evolving nature of Chinese power. His particular research interests include Chinese foreign and security policy, Chinese military modernization, and U.S.-China technological competition. Prior to joining the China Power Project, he conducted research on Chinese politics and foreign policy for the Project 2049 Institute, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS, and Trivium China.

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Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang told reporters covering a parliamentary session in Beijing this week, that China is actively working to advance relations with Russia “as the world becomes more turbulent.” The announcement comes as Western countries warn Beijing against providing lethal aid to Russia in support of it’s war in Ukraine, something China has denied as it positions itself as peacemaker by proposing a political settlement.

The foreign minister’s comments raise questions over whether China is coming to Russia’s rescue in Ukraine as Beijing continues to support Russia so that it is not “strategically weakened” by the war and Western sanctions.

Russia’s dependence on Beijing obviously increases China’s leverage in the relationship between the two countries as China benefits materially from the purchase of Russian energy supplies at a steep discount. These are among the observations offered by Brian Hart, CSIS fellow with the China Power Project, in a recent interview with The Cipher Brief. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


The Cipher Brief: What is the significance of U.S. and NATO allegations that China is contemplating lethal aid to Russia to support its war in Ukraine? 

Hart: Senior U.S. and EU officials have gone out of their way to call this a “red line” that Beijing should not cross. That is the kind of language that officials use when they really want to get their message across. Providing direct lethal aid to Russia would be a “crossing the Rubicon” moment for China’s relations with the West. So far, available evidence shows that China has walked a tightrope over the Ukraine war by supporting Russia diplomatically and economically, but it has not stuck out its neck in ways that would put China directly in U.S. and European crosshairs for major punitive responses. Choosing to provide Russia with arms would upturn all of that and show that Beijing is willing to absorb the potential blowback and disregard the harm it would do to its ties with the West.

The Cipher Brief: The German magazine Der Spiegel recently reported that a Chinese manufacturer is in negotiations to provide “kamikaze” drones to Russia. What would motivate China to provide drones in support of Russia’s war in Ukraine?

Hart: In general, I think China would only stick its neck out to support Russia by providing lethal aid that can actually make a considerable difference in Russia’s favor. The impact on the battlefield of Chinese lethal aid to Russia would really depend on what China provides and in what quantities. “Kamikaze” drones could have a significant impact in large quantities because drones have been a big part of the war.

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The Cipher Brief: The U.S. and NATO have signaled immediate retaliatory actions — probably led by additional sanctions — should China proceed with lethal aid to Russia. What would be the nature and scope of these sanctions, and what other measures might Western powers consider?

Hart: The baseline U.S. response would be sanctions on the companies involved, but Washington could go further. It could impose new export controls on other industries that are akin to those that the Biden administration put in place on semiconductors. Of course, that could significantly harm related U.S. and allied industries. So, the real question is whether and how Washington can take responses that impose costs on China—to get its message across—while mitigating the fallout for U.S. and partner economies.

The Cipher Brief: An uptick in Chinese-Russian economic ties has been reported by multiple sources, with special focus on Chinese consumption of Russian oil, and Russian purchases of electronics and consumer goods and dual-use technology components. What longer-term strategies is China pursuing through these strengthened economic linkages with Russia?

Hart: First, China wants to aid Russia materially on the economic front because it does not want Russia to be strategically weakened by the war and Western reprisals. Russia is China’s most powerful partner on the world stage, and Beijing will want to see Russia continue to have global influence. At the same time, Beijing sees benefits from Moscow being increasingly reliant on China. That gives China increasing leverage over the relationship. It is also important to note that China has gained materially from aiding Russia as well; it was able to purchase Russian oil at a steep discount.

The Cipher Brief: China has put forth a peace plan for Ukraine. What are the prospects for this diplomatic initiative to be seriously considered by parties to the Ukraine conflict?

Hart: The “peace plan” for Ukraine was not really a peace plan. It was a short document that reiterated past talking points on the war. It did not include any concrete steps for resolving the war, and I don’t expect it to have a significant impact. It may have a mild impact on improving China’s image in Europe. There were parts of the document that were welcome to Western audiences—most notably the statements about opposing nuclear threats. But this largely rehashed statements that Xi Jinping had already made. Overall, I don’t think it will move the needle much. Even Russia has had a fairly tepid response to the document. Some Russian officials and experts have paid lip service to the document in order to show support for China, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said bluntly that, “We paid a lot of attention to our Chinese friends’ plan… [but] for now, we don’t see any of the conditions that are needed to bring this whole story towards peace.”

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